Whether it's party time or snack time, there is only one word on everyone's lips; only one snack in everyone's mouth this summer: popcorn.
The puffed-up kernel of corn has moved out of the cinema-screen gloom and into the party-circuit limelight, thanks to a transformation of flavour and calorie content of which even Heston Blumenthal might approve. Popcorn is suddenly hot. And it's keeping some very exalted company.
At a party thrown by modish auction house Phillips de Pury last month, instead of foie gras and caviar, sleek packets of Metcalfe's wasabi-flavoured popcorn went around on the waiters' trays. And at JW Anderson's last menswear show, models were given packs of ultra-light, air-popped snack to nibble on when not on the catwalk.
And now Marks & Spencer, the great barometer of middle-class esteem, has become the first supermarket to launch its own "gourmet range", which includes such unconventional flavours as curried coconut & black onion seed, chocolate & paprika and salted caramel.
"We first spotted big-flavoured, low-fat popcorn in San Francisco last year," says Matt McAuliffe, M&S product development manager and the man who masterminded the souped-up snack's move into M&S stores. "As we are such a nation of cinemagoers, we knew it was likely to suit British palates. Though we've given it an adventurous flavour makeover, while keeping the salt and calorie content as low as possible."
Indeed, so low-cal is the new-style popcorn – which is mostly made by popping kernels of corn in warm air, rather than the traditional oil popping method – Weight Watchers has recommended one of the new brands, Diva Gourmet Popcorn (4g fat, 100 calories per 23g bag), to its flock of dieters.
"They're a great snack to eat between meals or could be just the ticket to eat with your sandwich at lunch instead of crisps," advises Laia Farran Graves in the group's latest missive on snacking.
Sandwich chain Pret a Manger have tapped into demand for a healthy lunchtime snack, too. Brightly coloured packets of "skinny topcorn" now nestle alongside the stores' parsnip, beetroot and carrot crisps (themselves pioneering products when they launched in the late 1990s) in the chain's 160 UK stores.
"Our skinny Topcorn responded to the British consumers' desire for innovative takes on old favourites, in a similar way to our crisp flavours and they have proven a real best seller," says Sandy Collyer, Head of Food at Pret. "Topcorn is tasty, while also being low fat, so is great for snackers and fitness fanatics."
While the sumptuous coating on some brands can nudge up the calorie-counter to crisp-like levels, on the whole the new tide of popcorn brands have a first-rate nutritional profile. So good in fact, that start-up company Peter Popple Popcorn is marketing its whole-grain fruit chutney and golden syrup flavours (both contain 1.6g fat, 79 calories per 20g) as a children's lunchbox filler.
"Whether you're looking for party food or a snack for the children, popcorn is just the thing: it's full of vitamin B and E, has a low GI number and has a similar quantity of fibre as the equivalent weight of whole-wheat pasta," says Louise George, the brains behind the brand.
It is not, however, just children and health-conscious snackers it appeals to. The higher reaches of foodie-land have cottoned on to popcorn's potential too. The ABC Kitchen in New York has had popcorn ice cream on its dessert menu since 2009. And, in London, Joel Atunes, head chef at Brasserie Joel at the Park Plaza Hotel, Westminster Bridge, has been using popcorn in his dishes since last November. "I put popcorn custard and ice cream on the children's menu last year as a bit of fun, but we had so many adults asking for it that I moved it onto the main menu; now we sell between 60-80 dishes every week. I also serve corn soup with popcorn and truffle oil from time to time – that flies, too." says Atunes.
"I'm 48 now and I really want to have fun cooking – and popcorn is a versatile, creative food. And, more importantly, it's fun to serve up to my diners."
Perhaps that's why we've fallen so deeply, and so quickly, in love with the popping corn kernel's newest incarnation: it's the ultimate guilt-free, fun food. You can nibble daintily on individual pieces of it, or grab great handfuls and funnel them into your mouth; you can serve it as nibbles with your martinis, or use it as a base for some interesting culinary creativity. And, if you choose your brand wisely, you needn't worry about your waistline.
Food blogger and linchpin of the London supper club scene James Ramsden certainly thinks that's why we can't get enough of it: "It's so adaptable, so evocative of fun. It's great to see people updating and reinventing it.
"I had a smoked butter popcorn the other day and it was absolutely fantastic. It beats a bag of crisps hands-down."
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